Using questions effectively in supervision

The motivation for writing this post was my experience around asking questions as a supervisor.  I set out to understand what might be happening when a supervisee stated ‘Now, that is a really good question?’  Were they buying time to work out ‘the answer’ or had the question genuinely opened up the conversation for fruitful discussion?

Naturally, questions are an essential tool for navigating the supervisory relationship; questions allow the supervisor to articulate their curiosity about the topics brought for discussion as well as understanding the supervisees wants and needs for the session.  Questions can also be used to stimulate exploration, reflection and action.  The CLEAR model developed by Peter Hawkins and explained in Hawkins and Shohet (2012) lists potential questions and interventions that a supervisor might use to structure different phases of a supervision session.  

Hornstup et al. (2008) state that everything a supervisor ‘says or does, and does not say and does not do, is regarded as an intervention which could be helpful or harmful?’  They are explain that it is not enough to have a good question.  If I am to ask a question then I need to be mindful of the purpose of my question and only ask it if it is timely to do so in the context of the conversation.   

Heron (1975) identified six categories of intervention all of which are equally beneficial in supervision when used sensitively.  Heron’s work emphasises the need to consider the purpose of the question as well as the process.  The purpose of an intervention might be to advise or direct (prescriptive), instruct or inform (informative), be challenging or give direct feedback (confrontative), release tension for the supervisee (cathartic), encourage self-directed problem-solving (catalytic) and provide validation (supportive) (cited in Hawkins and Shohet, 2012).  Asking a question is not always the best course of action, for example, a supportive intervention is more likely to be a statement of validation.  

Sloan and Graham (2001) reviewed several studies that explored the potential utility of Heron’s six categories for analysing facilitation styles used in supervision by the nursing profession.  They discovered that nurses were more likely to use a supportive style than a directive approach (prescriptive/informative) and very rarely to use a confrontative, cathartic or catalytic style.     These findings illustrate that professionals are likely to have a preferred personal style when supervising and it resonates with me that it is more difficult to use the challenging interventions.  Yet, it is possibly when asking challenging questions that supervision is at its most useful and most productive because they help the supervisee to move out of a position where they might feel stuck.  

Ulleberg and Jensen (2017) add greater depth and breadth to this discussion by emphasising that the role of the supervisor is not to direct the interaction  by bringing their facilitation style to bear on the session, but to use those skills to ‘explore an unknown landscape’ where the supervisee is the co-creator.  They caution that ‘to practice questions in a one-sided way, as a technical skill, is not sufficient to become a good supervisor’.  They state that questions are not a tool to elicit a binary answer that is right or wrong but a stimulus to explore the ‘unknown landscape’.  Seen from this perspective asking questions to challenge and stimulate self reflection become less confrontational because they come out of a sense that you are tackling an issue side by side rather than head to head.  

To support this process Ulleberg and Jensen (2017) propose five different categories of question drawing on a range of theoretical approaches from the social constructivist theory to solution-focused or narrative traditions, each with a diffeent purpose in supervision. 




Meta questions To maintain a conversation about the conversation
  • Which challenge shall we discuss?
  • Are we talking about what you find most challenging right now?
  • Was anything you heard difficult or challenging to listen to?’
Mapping out Gather information, clarify and explore the topics LINEAR – 5W’s&H

CIRCULAR – explore differences and similarities between ideas, experiences and values 

* ’How would you explain the difference that the client understands the need to practice independently but struggles to do so?’ 

SCALE – taken from solution-focused therapy 

*’on a scale of 1-10 when 10 means you are really confident and …. how confident are you that this is the correct intervention with your client?’

NARRATIVE – asking questions such as *’What happened?’

*’Who did what?’

to facilitate the supervisee to link together disparate statements about a situations

Influence and challenge Move the supervisee on NARRATIVE – externalising questions might help a supervisee to look at difficult behaviours more objectively, i.e. if the supervisee says ‘She is so anxious so we can’t ….’ a useful question might be ‘This anxiety, how does it make you feel?’

LEADING QUESTIONS ‘Can you think of a theoretical perspective that can help you with that?’

Thicken Develop the stories and expand the supervisees understanding of the situation because situations are usually more complex than they appear  SOLUTION-FOCUSED APPROACH – when facing a problem, a question such as *’Can you remember a time when this intervention worked well?’ to explore a more positive perspective

NARRATIVE – exploring the same situations from a dual perspective, by moving between the actions/facts of the situations and the meaning that might be invoked for the individuals involved

*’What did he do?’ with ‘What thought might have been behind that?’   

Solutions Explore what will work SOLUTION-FOCUSED APPROACH questions about solutions that have already had a positive effect 

*’What keeps you going when working with this difficult situation?’

Or simply reflecting on 

*’What has improved?’

Ulleberg and Jensen (2017) add relationship, co-creation and safe space to the ideas of structure, process and facilitation.  Questions are posed based on our perception of how the supervisee is receiving and responding to what we say, acknowledging that this might be different from what we had anticipated.  The questions help us keep the conversation on track and be in line with what the supervisee really wants to talk about.  There is a recognition that it is only when the supervisee feels ‘…. received, valued, understood ….. that they feel safe enough and open enough to review and challenge [themselves], as well as to value [themselves] and [their] own  abilities” (Proctor, 1988b).

Returning to the inspiration for this article, it seems that the question is important but before I pay attention to the question, I need to pay close attention to the relationship and context.  It is from this sure footing that questions are best received.  Whilst it is useful to begin with a framework for structuring a session such as the CLEAR model, skills that enable a supervisor to manoeuvre around a topic using questions drawn from a range of different theories allow for a rich conversation and depth in the supervisory relationship.  

Mary Ganpatsingh



Hawkins, P and Shohet, R (2012) Supervision in the Helping Professions, 4th edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Heron, J (1975) Six-Category intervention analysis.  Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey, Surrey, UK

Heron, J (1989) Six-Category intervention analysis (3rd edition).  Human Potential Resource Group, University of Surrey, Surrey, UK

Hornstrup, C., Tomm, K., & Johansen, T. (2008). Interventive interviewing revisited and expanded. Unpublished manuscript available at

Proctor, B (1997) Supervision: a co-operative exercise in accountability, in M. Marken and M. Payne (eds) Enabling and Ensuring. Leicester: National Youth Bureau and Council for education and Training in Youth and Community Work.

Sloan G and Watson, H (2001) John Heron’s six‐category intervention analysis: towards understanding interpersonal relations and progressing the delivery of clinical supervision for mental health nursing in the United Kingdom. Journal of Advanced Nursing 36 (2), 206-214

Ulleberg I, Jensen P (2017) Asking Questions in Supervision. In: Vetere A., Sheehan J. (eds) Supervision of Family Therapy and Systemic Practice. Focused Issues in Family Therapy. Springer, Cham